Do you see stress as helpful or harmful? If you recognise that it can have upsides – by sharpening your focus and boosting your motivation, and that stressful challenges can offer learning and achievement opportunities – then you have a positive stress mindset (conversely, if you see stress as unpleasant, debilitating and threatening, then you have a negative stress mindset).
A new diary study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology has explored the implications of stress mindset for the workplace – surprisingly, one of the first investigations to do so. The researchers, led by Anne Casper at the University of Mannheim, found that anticipating a large workload on a given day was associated with employees upping their performance that day, taking more proactive steps to meet the challenge, and ending the day feeling more energised, but only if they had a positive stress mindset.
The findings come from 171 employees in various occupations and industries, mainly education, health and social care, and IT. Their average age was 39 and just over half were men. They first completed a survey about their stress mindset. Then they completed an online diary three times a day – morning, after work, before bed – for five working days. In the morning, the diary prompted them to answer questions about the their expected workload that day. Later, it asked them about any constructive steps they’d taken to meet the day’s challenges, such as planning and scheduling, and seeing the challenge as a learning opportunity. In the evening, participants also indicated how well they’d performed, and how energetic they felt.
For employees with a positive stress mindset, there was an association between expecting a larger workload and taking more proactive steps to cope. In turn, these proactive, constructive behaviours (the researchers call this “approach coping”) were related to performing better, and feeling more energised. But for those with a negative stress mindset, this association was reversed – the more workload they anticipated, the less they performed constructive coping behaviours. In turn, the worse these workers said they’d performed, and the less energised they felt at the day’s end. This is consistent with the idea that people with a negative stress mindset try to cope through avoidance.
The new findings complement previous research that’s shown our stress mindset can influence how we respond to challenges. For instance, students with a positive stress mindset are more inclined to seek out feedback after completing a stressful task (presumably because they see it as a chance to learn).
Casper and her colleagues said their new results show the benefits that could come from raising people’s awareness of the concept of stress mindset. Promisingly, they said there is some evidence that people can be helped to develop a positive stress mindset. However, they also acknowledged some limitations with their research – for instance, they didn’t look at employees’ expectations about how difficult their work will be (only how much they had to do). Similarly, the measure of stress mindset lacked nuance. Some people may think modest amounts of stress are helpful, for example, but that extreme stress is harmful.
I’d add another caveat – this study doesn’t provide strong causal evidence for the effects of stress mindset. That would require altering some employees’ stress mindset through a training programme and looking to see what effects this had on their behaviour and performance.
Finally, it’s worth noting, as the researchers do, that this study focused on effects within a single day. It’s well-established that a chronic excessive workload is associated with negative outcomes for health and performance (most likely regardless of mindset). This study shows that having a positive stress mindset may help us cope with – perhaps even benefit from – a particularly challenging, high intensity work day, but this shouldn’t be taken as a justification for bosses to overburden their staff long-term.
Image is Figure 2 from Casper et al, 2017.